post archive

Armenians in France


Open Letter from Medz Bazar

 

My friends from the Paris-based musical band Collectif Medz Bazar asked me to help disseminate this open letter. It tells a sad story about intolerance, but the text of the letter itself is a beautiful expression of  the band’s commitment to amplifying the humane in the human through music. 

An open letter to those who made sure the musical band Collectif Medz Bazar would not be able to sing its repertoire during the “Nuit arménienne” (Armenian night) of Arnouville on April 22nd 2017, because of their hostility towards the songs in the Turkish language.

Until recently, we, the Collectif Medz Bazar, were happy to count among the participants in the “Nuit arménienne” (Armenian night), an event organized by the municipality of

Arnouville, France, in partnership with several Armenian associations, this coming April 22nd. The event organizers informed us that a few individuals and Armenian associations of

Arnouville were adamantly against our playing the songs of our repertory that are in Turkish and that they were doing everything in their power to stop us from singing them. Since we did not receive any message directly from them, we cannot speculate about their reasons.

Because of this, and to avoid any misunderstanding, we sent them a letter last month via the event organizers, very clearly identifying our approach and explaining that nothing in our project goes against the spirit and feeling of the event.

Having read our letter as well, the event organizers were inclined to pursue our participation, because not only did they feel that our repertory didn’t pose any problems, they expressed their adherence to the values that we defend. But the response of the individuals and associations in question was total rejection, once again without bothering to address us directly. What’s more, they intensified their campaign against our repertory, forcing the municipality to disinvite us, the latter being afraid that on this date (April 22nd), which is close to both the annual commemoration of the Armenian genocide and the 1st round of the presidential elections in France, some sort of disturbance might occur during the event.

We are aghast and totally speechless at the relentlessness with which these individuals and associations worked to sabotage a concert that had been scheduled a long time in advance, attacking a symbol, in this case a language, as if it were an enemy. We consequently invite these persons and associations via this open letter, reformulating our initial letter, to assume their actions publicly or, if they do not dare to do so, to have the decency to reconsider their actions and to renounce such practices in the future.

The Collectif Medz Bazar, a musical ensemble based in Paris, is composed of musicians of various origins: Armenian, Turk, Franco-American. The group got together not with the intention of symbolizing reconciliation between Armenians and Turks, but simply to share with one another their artistic creativity and friendship. But the Armenian-Turk factor does play a part in that a reciprocal curiosity did exist, a need to know, to be able to laugh, cry, speak openly, sing and play music together – this desire surely drew us towards one another. During a performance, our only propos is the music we present to the public, which is drawn from our respective cultures in the intimacy and spontaneity of each person; our mother tongues are thus the very basis of our repertory and their presence is indisputable.

It would appear that for some Armenians, singing in the Turkish language is an issue.

The few anonymous Arnouville individuals are not the first to protest, and it’s easy to imagine a sizeable group of Turks who think exactly the same thing about singing in Armenian. Their respective reasons or justifications being, without any doubt, completely different. But in both cases, the result is the same: they both censure a language, incite xenophobia. But observe this obvious fact: one can say anything one wants in any language. A book denying the Armenian genocide can be written in Armenian just as a book presenting a thorough investigation of this subject can be written in Turkish. A language, a culture cannot be held responsible, even symbolically, for the crimes perpetrated by those who claim said language or culture as their own. A language is not “owned”: some Armenians speak Turkish, some Assyrians speak Kurdish; this letter is written in French and translated into English. The Collectif Medz Bazar does not represent any national culture, we draw from all living cultures. The culture of Turkey, like that of many many other nations, is multiple and as varied as the people who live there. When we sing in Armenian, in Turkish, in French, we are not glorifying the Armenian, Turkish or French cultures. Reducing a language or a piece of music to a national symbol is not the work of an artist. But offering a part of yourself by singing in your mother tongue, a simple, generous act, is. Why, then, attack persons whose only intention is to share their music and the joy of being able to sing together?

Our project forms part of a global change, fragile but real, in relations between

Armenians and Turks. Initiatives such as ours are not isolated cases, there is today a community of persons sharing the same aspiration: to communicate, get to know each other better, try to live together, make progress on an individual basis given the lack of any political impetus. This aspiration and mutual coming closer of two traditionally hostile peoples, although it cannot replace the necessity of a political resolution to the Armenian Question, does serve to raise awareness at an individual level and will undoubtedly contribute to collective healing, however slow it may be. At present, Armenians can openly commemorate with the Turks, with the Kurds: a slow awakening of awareness has been in progress for several years now. To turn one’s back on this progress means returning to the status quo and would be equivalent to turning one’s back on those who, sometimes putting their lives at risk, assume a position that goes against the current dominating ideology. In the name of what combat?

Music is a universal language that can transmit far more that words can. The next time your prejudices make you rise up against our music (or against anyone else), take a minute to listen to the rhythms and melodies, the thoughts and emotions that we express. You will understand the sincerity of our work.

With this open letter, we join our voices to all those who defend the fundamental values of freedom of expression and brother/sisterhood among peoples.

We invite you to do the same.

The Collectif Medz Bazar

April 2017

 

 

 


The Best Writing Advice I’ve Ever Heard

Just published in paperback by She Writes Press

Just reissued in paperback by She Writes Press

 

You hear all kinds of advice about writing, and there are dozens of handbooks offering guidance, most of it is abstract and pretty useless, or else it’s so specific that it doesn’t suit. Many years ago when I was a student, a poet and teacher gave me a piece of advice that didn’t mean much at the time, but which I understood much later to be the best writing tip ever offered to me.

“Respect your process,” is what she said, and she said it before “writing process” had become a registered trademark. Her words echo in my head at moments when I am annoyed with myself for how slowly I write, or for how much time I spend researching before I even start to write, or for the fact that I don’t have the book mapped out in my head before I begin, which means that I will have to do multiple drafts to get it where it needs to be.

What I have recognized lately, however, is that process, like everything else, doesn’t stay the same. I have written three novels, and each time, the process has been different. With the first book, as I made the transition from poetry to fiction, the only way I could possibly think about taking on something as enormous as a novel was by breaking the narrative down into 10-15 page episodic chapters. I also had two small children, and was running a small business as a literary scout for foreign publishers, so the only time I could devote to writing was Friday morning. I never had writer’s block, because if I didn’t churn out those pages once a week, the novel was never going to get done.

By the time Zabelle, a fictionalized account of my grandmother’s life as an Armenian Genocide survivor and immigrant bride, was published, I was already two years into researching my second novel, Dreams of Bread and Fire, a coming-of-age story about someone of my generation growing up in the Armenian-American community. My kids were in elementary school, I had quit the scouting business, and my writing process had changed: I wrote for two hours each day. I knew other writers who could sit at a keyboard for six hours or more a day, but for me two hours was the upper limit of productive writing time. Of course, I kept tinkering with it in my head while I was sitting on the playground or even when I was sleeping, but two hours in front of the computer was my process.

When I started researching my third novel about Armenians in Paris during the Nazi occupation, I was working twenty plus hours a week for CODEPINK Women for Peace. There were many days when being at a street demonstration against the Iraq war took precedence over laboring on the novel; still I tried to stick to the two-hour a weekday regimen. But I added a new rule: even if I didn’t have two hours, I would write for twenty minutes. Twenty minutes was enough to keep the characters and the language active in my mind so that the passive work would continue. It took me ten years to write the third book, partly because of CODEPINK and the miserable state of the world, and partly because as my kids got older they took up more space in my head than they did when they were small.

All The Light There Was, my World War II novel, was published in hardcover in 2013 and has just been reissued in paperback by She Writes Press. For two years now I’ve been researching a new novel, the fourth installment in what my editor has dubbed “The Armenian Diaspora Quartet.” It’s about Armenians in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War. I haven’t started writing, and I feel anxious when I think about the fact that I don’t yet hear the sentences that will launch this story. But then I remember my mantra: “Respect your process.” I’m not entirely sure what the process will be. One of my daughters is in graduate school, and the other is a freshman in college. I’m still engaged in grassroots social justice organizing with CODEPINK, and I’ve started doing more speaking engagements, traveling, and teaching. I do know that the name of my main character is Vera, and that she grew up in the Armenian community of Bourj Hammoud before she and her family immigrated to the United States in 1980. I’m looking forward to spending a lot of time with her.

 

 

Nancy Kricorian
New York City


We Have So Many Stories

The Renault factories are working for the German Army. The Renault factories were hit.

The Renault factories are working for the German Army. The Renault factories were hit.

 

Last week I presented my ALL THE LIGHT THERE WAS slideshow at the Armenian Church of the Holy Ascension in Trumbull, Connecticut. The event was hosted by the Church’s Women’s Guild. Two sisters, Marie and Jean, who are members of the church and had already read the novel, spoke to me before and after my presentation. Jean said, “It meant so much to us that you have written this book. Everything was so familiar, and I have never read before our story.” They had lived in Issy-Les-Moulineaux, a working class suburb of Paris, during the war. Jean, the younger of the two, was born just before the war started and so her memories of the occupation were hazy, but her elder sister Marie told me the story of how her mother and other Armenian women had worked at the nearby Renault factory making nets to cover the tanks and trucks that were being manufactured at that location. Because of the German war work, the Allied bombers targeted the factory. One night, however, the Armenian women, who worked the shift that got out at 11 p.m., were at the factory when the Allied fliers mistakenly dropped bombs on their civilian neighborhood. The sisters’ building was badly damaged, but no one in the family was harmed. Their neighbor fared worse—while she was at work her husband and three children were killed. “You should have talked with us before you wrote the book,” they said. “We have so many stories.”

 

Nancy Kricorian


Peniche Anako: An Armenian Home Away from Home

The Peniche Anako, a cultural center housed on a canal barge in Paris

The Peniche Anako, a cultural center housed on a canal barge in Paris

 

 

When I was in Paris in May, my friend Virginia Pattie Kerovpyan invited me to join her on the Peniche Anako for a jazz concert one evening. The Peniche Anako is a canal barge docked on the West Bank of the La Villette Basin in the 19th arrondissement. The Basin, which is the largest artificial lake in Paris, was filled with water in December 1808 and is part of the 130-kilometer (80.7 mile) Parisian Canal Network that is operated by the municipality. Canal barges have access to about 22 kilometers of the network.

Peniche Anako opened its doors in the fall of 2008 under the direction of Patrick Bernard, an ethnologist whose work focused on the oral traditions of indigenous peoples. In January of 2009, the barge was purchased by the Armenian Red Cross Association (in French le Comité de secours de la Croix Rouge Arménienne, C.S.R.A.), which is an organization founded in the 1920’s by doctors, lawyers and other professionals to provide aid to Armenian Genocide survivors and refugees. In purchasing the boat, the C.S.R.A. intended to continue with multicultural programming, while creating a space where Armenian culture could also be showcased.

Virginia Pattie Kerovpyan took over as Director of Creative Programming starting in 2010, and a close-knit circle of friends and family keeps the project running. When I visited the boat on my recent trip to Paris, her husband Aram was working behind the bar, a friend was collecting tickets at the door, her son was handling the soundboard, and her daughter’s boyfriend was the chef for the evening. The excellent jazz trio concert that night, billed as Anne Pacéo a Carte Blanche,” was performed by the aforementioned Anne Pacéo on percussion, along with Maxime Bender on bass and Olivier Lutz on saxophone. The space is not large—the bar area can comfortably accommodate around 20 people, and the performance space has a capacity of 100—which adds to the intimacy and warmth of the atmosphere.

In addition to the musical performances, ranging from classical, to folk, to jazz, Kerovpyan also schedules visits by artists and storytellers, as well as film screenings, lectures, and dramatic readings. Each month the programming is focused on a different theme: for example this past spring March was devoted to the cultures of Spain and Portugal; in April the theme was Solidarity Encounters and France; The Near East and the Fertile Crescent were the focus in May; and World Diasporas in June. Annually the month of October is dedicated to Armenian culture, with a broad array of events featuring Armenian musicians, artists, photographers and lecturers. Local school children have twice been invited onto the barge for activities—once for an Armenian calligraphy workshop, and the second time for a lesson in Armenian song and dance.

Kerovpyan says, “The Peniche is a space where we aim to provide a warm welcome to all people. We also hope that Armenians from around the world who are passing through Paris will think of this as a home away from home.”

 

 

La Peniche Anako (http://penicheanako.info)

Bassin de la Villette

Across from 61, quai de la Seine

75019 PARIS 
Métro: Riquet, Stalingrad ou Jaurès

 

 

This piece originally appeared via The Armenian Weekly.

 

Nancy Kricorian

 


Paris: City of Shadows

deportes

To the memory of the 112 inhabitants of this building, among them 40 small children, who were deported and who died in German camps in 1942

 

I visited Paris for the first time when I was a twenty-year-old college student. I can close my eyes and remember what the unfamiliar city looked like to me during this initial encounter—the orderliness of the public gardens with their gravel walkways, wooden benches and round-seated metal chairs; the relative smallness of the automobiles; and the historic monuments gleaming under floodlights at night.

Coming from the United States—the New World— the enormous weight of history Paris carried was a visceral shock, especially the buildings: Medieval cloisters, Gothic cathedrals, seventeenth century catacombs, Revolutionary and Napoleonic monuments, and elegant 19th-century apartment blocks. But I was fascinated even more by the traces left behind by the Second World War. Rather than buildings and monuments, the trauma of the war and the Nazi Occupation remains present in mundane, unexpected, and easy-to-overlook markers scattered throughout the city.

There were seats on the metro reserved for the war wounded. The first time I saw these signs, the French term mutilés de guerre, which had originated to refer to wounded veterans from the First World War, stunned me in its graphicness. I was always expecting to see men with empty sleeves or wooden legs sitting in the designated seats. All around the city, I noticed marble plaques on walls commemorating groups and individuals who had struggled and suffered during the Occupation, ranging from Jewish children who had been deported to blind people who had participated in the Resistance, and young men who had died fighting on the streets liberating Paris in August 1944.

During the ten years I spent researching and writing my novel ALL THE LIGHT THERE WAS, I realized that the manner in which Paris memorialized Les Années Noires (The Dark Years) was in many ways akin to how it had experienced the war. The city was spared the horrific bombing that devastated London and Berlin. But loss and fear were interwoven into every corner of the city; I realized that my biggest task as a writer was to convey the immediate if mostly commonplace presence of that constant looming terror, even as daily life went on.

Several salient factors about how most Parisians had lived the war came through in everything I learned. It was a dark time both literally and figuratively. There were black outs and black out curtains limiting sight and vision. Political repression backed up by deportation and systemic violence, censorship, self-censorship, and denunciations by neighbors all resulted in a feeling of moral darkness and isolation. In addition to this pervasive gloom, people were hungry. The Germans used France as their breadbasket during the war, taking vast quantities of French agricultural products such as wheat, butter, cheese, and wine, leaving the French to subsist on root vegetables that had formerly been cattle fodder. Parisian grimly joked about the German doryphores (potato bugs) who had made off with all their potatoes. A third factor that came up in all the accounts was how cold people were during the bitter winters of the Occupation. With the German war machine siphoning off oil, gas and coal, there was not much left for heating Parisian apartments and schools.

When I was writing the novel, it was as though every day I left my home in Manhattan and spent a few hours with my characters in their Belleville apartment. I heard the sounds of the concierge’s bucket and mop on the landing. I smelled the dreaded rutabagas cooking in the kitchen. And I shivered with Maral, my narrator and main character, as she bundled into several sweaters before crawling into her glacial bed.

This was the Paris that I traveled to on a daily basis for almost ten years—not the romantic city of my student days, nor the place where on family holiday I took my children to play on the brightly colored climbing structures in the Jardin des Tuileries. It was a somber city, a city of shadows and privation, but also a place where people of conscience worked hard to keep a small light of dignity burning in an inhumane time. Now that I have finished the book, I understand that the Paris of 70 years ago has yet to truly vanish: its ghost-like presence gently marks the city landscape. And now, on my next visit to Paris, I have Maral, her friends, and her family, to walk with me as guides to that almost-hidden past.

Nancy Kricorian
April 2013
New York City

 

This piece originally appeared on the American Library of Paris blog in advance of a book presentation scheduled there on May 15, 2013


Everyone’s A Critic

On sale date March 12, 2013

On sale date March 12, 2013

 

In the old days, publishers sent out bound galleys or proofs to a limited number of reviewers, journalists, film and translation scouts, and booksellers in the hopes of drumming up early interest in an upcoming title. Now there is Net Galley, a platform where a publisher can upload an electronic version of the galleys that provides early access to reviewers, bloggers, journalists, librarians, booksellers, educators and other “readers of influence.”

From what I can tell, people who have accessed ALL THE LIGHT THERE WAS through Net Galley include members of the Amazon Vines reviewers program and a wide array of bloggers, some of whom posted ratings on Goodreads.

So far I have come across reviews from a young woman in Indonesia, on a blog called “A Sweet Spot Home” that features posts about entertaining along with book reviews, and on a blog called “BooksNFreshAir.” I have no idea how many people these advance reviews reach and how much they help the launch of a title, but my editor said, “They can’t hurt.”

What does it mean that there are now thousands of people weighing in on a book through blogs, customer comments, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads and dozens of other platforms? Neil Gabler had an interesting piece in The Guardian a few years ago called “Everyone’s a critic now” that examines the effects of online community commentary on reviewing. He sums up his argument thus: “The point is that authority has migrated from critics to ordinary folks, and there is nothing—not collusion or singleness of purpose or torrents of publicity—that the traditional critics can do about it. They have seen their monopoly usurped by what amounts to a vast technological word-of-mouth of hundreds of millions of people.”

March 12 is the official publication date of ALL THE LIGHT THERE WAS, and the early reviews will soon be joined by those from mainstream outlets along with a cacophony of amateur reviews and customer comments. Bring on the vibrant, noisy, democratic conversation.

 

 

Nancy Kricorian


Literary Sweepstakes

Author Buzz letter

Author Buzz letter

 

As part of the promotional drive for my new novel, I have set up a mailing list called NK Book Group, and have been sending out updates on the launch of the book, including reviews, tour information, and other details from the writing and selling life. Below is the missive that went out last week. If you are interested in joining the mailing list, send your request to nkbookgroup[at]gmail.com

 

Dear Friends,

I knew that bookselling had been transformed in the ten years since my second novel was published, but didn’t have a grasp of the details until the past few weeks as the publication of ALL THE LIGHT THERE WAS nears. I’m getting a closer look at the work the marketing and publicity staff at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt are doing on my behalf. I’m also finding myself being tasked with things I’ve never done before, such as writing pieces on spec to be pitched to newspapers and online magazines, and running a book give-away contest.

This week Shelf Awareness, which produces newsletters for librarians, booksellers, bloggers and hardcore readers, sent out a Dear Reader letter that I composed (see above). I must admit that my marketing maven husband helped edit the letter; I had little idea of how to pitch my book in 75-85 words. He said, “I put in love, because I knew you wouldn’t allow romance.” The pitch included information about how to enter a contest to win one of five copies that my publisher is giving away.

The email entries from librarians and book bloggers started coming in. Many of them had Maral in the subject line, as instructed, and then simply a name and address. Most of them had the feel of someone who sent the message the way people enter jingle contests or buy lottery tickets, with little expectation of winning. But some of them were oddly moving, as people described why they were interested in receiving a copy of the book. My favorite was from a high school librarian who wrote, “I would love to have ALL THE LIGHT THERE WAS on the shelf for our students.”

I found out from the marketing person at HMH that the contest has two more rounds, as Shelf Awareness will be featuring the book in two different upcoming newsletters. So I’m expecting another influx of messages, and we won’t be announcing winners until April 8th.

That’s it for this week, dear Readers. Stay tuned for upcoming chapters in the Annals of Self-Promotion!

Nancy Kricorian


Nazareth Peshdikian: Cobbler, Actor, Humanist

 

Nazareth Peshdikian and me in his Paris apartment, 2003

Nazareth Peshdikian and me in his Paris apartment, 2003

 

 

In November 2003 when I went to Paris to do research for my third novel, I interviewed a number of elderly Armenian who had lived through the Occupation. One of them was Nazareth Peshdikian, a Genocide survivor who was born in Zeitoun in 1909. Orphaned in 1915, he wandered from Aleppo to Baghdad to Jerusalem before immigrating to France when he was twenty-five years old. In Paris, he had worked as a shoemaker and a cobbler. He was also an amateur actor in the Armenian theater. He told me that he had performed in plays and theatricals with the Aznavourians (the family of Charles Aznavour).

The interview was conducted in French, although he frequently slipped into Armenian.  At age 93, his memory was a little foggy and when he forgot a name he was looking for, it stopped him in his narrative. Nazareth brought out his photo album, as well as an array of identity and membership cards. He told me he was “a Marxist and a humanist,” and a proud member of the Armenian Hunchakian Social Democratic Party. During the war his resistance work entailed delivering clandestine letters and putting anti-Nazi tracts in mailboxes.

In 1943, he said, the American had bombed the 15th Arrondissement of Paris where he was living. His home was destroyed. His rabbit hutch was upended, but the rabbits survived. His first wife was wounded and transported to the hospital where she died. He repeated in French and Armenian several times, almost in wonder all those decades later, “Les lapins, nabasdagnereh…the rabbits lived, but my wife died.”

 

Nancy Kricorian

*

 

For those who can read French, here is an interview with Nazareth Peshdikian (1909-2007) that was published in 2002. It includes a detailed account of his experiences during the Genocide.


Extended Family: When Fictional Characters Show Up In Your Living Room

moutarde

 

We hear that for many writers, the characters they create “come alive” during the writing process. But in what ways is that phrase more than a simple metaphor? And how is a writer supposed to manage the expanded household as it begins to fill up with progeny spilling over from the pages of a work in progress?

My third novel, All the Light There Was, which is set in the Armenian community of Paris during the Nazi Occupation, took ten years to research and write. In part I needed a decade because I had a great deal of research to do, but it was primarily due to the fact that I was juggling a few other jobs-running a household, raising two daughters (and it turns out that dealing with kids between the ages of eight to eighteen takes more space in your head than was necessary from zero to eight) and working for a women’s peace group trying to stop multiple U.S.-funded wars and occupations.

In order to recreate the atmosphere of the working class neighborhood of Belleville during the period the French refer to as Les Années Noires (The Dark Years), I read voluminously from histories, journals, collections of letters, and novels penned during and immediately after the war years. I went to Paris to tour the lycée that my narrator and protagonist Maral Pegorian had attended, and to interview octogenarian and nonagenarian Parisian Armenians who had lived through the war.

Through the research, several salient material details were impressed upon me again and again: during the Occupation ordinary people were hungry most of the time, during the four winters under Nazi rule Paris apartments were generally without heat, and Parisians were often in the dark both literally and metaphorically. Germany used France as its wartime breadbasket, making off with the lion’s share of French butter, milk, wheat, vegetables, fruit and meat. Food was rationed and even with ration tickets in hand shoppers were often unable to procure their due. Rutabagas and turnips, which had been used before the war as cattle fodder, were now a staple of French cuisine. The Germans also requisitioned French coal and other fuel, leaving Paris apartments unheated in winter. Nighttime blackouts meant the streets were dark and curfews often kept people in their homes after nightfall.

Once the bulk of the research was done, I disciplined myself to write two hours a day, five days a week, aiming for two pages a day. This schedule was mostly successful, except when one of the kids stayed home sick from school, or there was an emergency street demonstration.

While I was writing, I traveled back in time and across the ocean to Occupied Paris. I could not only hear the voices of my characters, but I could also feel the cold air seeping in the cracks around the window frames, and smell the dreaded rutabagas cooking in the kitchen. I fretted with Maral over her lack of bath soap, and shared the frustration of her cobbler father about his inability to get leather. But it wasn’t until the day that my husband asked me why we had seven jars of mustard in the pantry that I realized how deep this shared experience had gone.

It was true—there were seven jars of mustard in the pantry, and six jars of jam, along with more canned goods than we could eat in a winter. Without being conscious of what I was doing, I had stockpiled the foodstuffs that Maral’s family lacked in Paris in 1942. I had always thought of myself as spending hours living in the Pegorians’ world; what I hadn’t realized was that the characters had moved into my apartment. They were haunting our pantry, showing up in conversation through the Armenian proverbs I cadged from Maral’s father, and occupying my thoughts when I was supposed to be helping with the science fair poster. Once I became conscious of their presence as part of the family, I was better able to balance their demands with those of my real world children.

Ten years on, once the novel was completed, the manuscript handed over to my editor and the rest of the publishing team, the characters started to recede, and I missed them. But I’m glad too that they are soon heading out into the world and into the homes of my readers.

Now I’ve begun work on my next novel. It’s about an Armenian family in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War. I’m excited, but a little anxious, about what life will be like with them in the house.

 

 

Nancy Kricorian

 


Shoemakers of Belleville

Novel by Clément Lépidis

 

During my first research trip to Paris, I went to the Librairie Orientale Samuelian not far from the Luxembourg Gardens. Alice Aslanian, whose father had founded the bookstore in 1930, remembered me from a previous visit and pointed out a copy of Zabelle they had among their wares. She pulled from the shelves a number of books that she thought would be germane to my research, and then went to the back to find a yellowed paperback copy of a book that was out of print and difficult to find: L’Armenien by Clément Lépidis, originally published in 1973. (It has since been reissued by Desmos.) This she generously offered to me as a gift.

Lépidis, who was born in 1920 and died in 1997, was a French writer of Greek descent. His immigrant father had fled Anatolia during the anti-Christian massacres and ended up working in the shoe trade of Belleville. (In Paris between the two wars Greeks and Armenians dominated fine shoemaking.)

The protagonist of L’Armenien was Aram Tokatlérian, an Armenian Genocide survivor trained in an orphan school as a shoemaker, who had come to France to start a new life. He found work in a Belleville shoe atelier in the thirties. In this novel, Belleville was alive with vibrant characters, the scents of spices in the Armenian food shop, the smell of the tannery where the shoemakers procured the leather they used, the sounds of the cobbler’s hammer and accordion music from dance halls.

Lépidis wrote two memoirs–Des Dimanches à Belleville (Sundays in Belleville) and Je me souviens du 20e arrondissement (I Remember the 20th Arrondissement)—that evoked in loving detail the neighborhood of his childhood, which was more like a village than an urban enclave. Reading these books was a way to immerse myself in the atmosphere of Belleville during the 30’s and 40’s, and was immensely helpful in my imaginative creation of Maral Pegorian’s world.

 

Nancy Kricorian